Poignant letter portrays torment of Great War's forgotten pacifists

18 October 2018
Gary Lewis

The struggle of Scotland's Conscientious Objectors who refused the call to arms in World War One is being highlighted by a letter from an Ayrshire father to his baby daughter. As the centenary of the Armistice approaches, the actor Gary Lewis has contributed a powerful reading of the intimate correspondence which is held in Glasgow Caledonian University's archive. It is now being shared online to help tell the forgotten story of Scotland's pacifist movement.

Ayrshire postal worker Robert Climie had been a life-long activist in the international peace movement before he was conscripted in 1916. Exercising his right to appeal on political grounds, a tribunal hearing initially backed Robert's case before a retired army officer, outraged at his refusal to fight, pursued the matter and saw it overturned. Like hundreds of other Scottish objectors, Robert was imprisoned at Wormwood Scrubs, before being moved to a labour camp by Loch Awe to work on forestry.

Writing from Argyll on his daughter Cathie's first birthday, the absent father's four-page letter says: "The first year of your life … will in later years be known as one of the worst years in the History of the World." It continues: "A most fearful war is raging … The World is just now divided into nations and the people of each nation believe themselves to be fighting on behalf of their own particular country… However, there are men and women who believe that all men and women are brothers and sisters. These people are known as Pacifists."

Clearly moved by the letter's sentiments, Gary said the letter had touched him deeply. "Men like Robert Climie were victimised and persecuted because of their stance, but it was a principled stance. It wasn't that they were cowards. It was because of their very firm conviction that men should not fight."

Historian and author Robert Duncan, whose book 'Objectors and Resisters' chronicles the story of the peace movement from 1914-18, says Robert's story is not unusual. "Between 1400 and 1500 Scots men were convicted for opposing the war. The conscience clause which enabled them to appeal conscription only applied to religious or moral grounds, and not the political beliefs which led so many to be involved in the international peace movement."

As we approach the centenary of the Armistice agreement next month, Mr Duncan says the men's story has been largely neglected. "The commemorations have been on the side of patriotism. The Conscientious Objectors remain much maligned and misunderstood. At the time, they split families and communities, but these were principled men who were prepared to face the consequences and their story should be heard."

Glasgow Caledonian University Archivist, Carole McCallum, says the letter was donated by the Stewart/Climie family, along with memorabilia and photographs from the pacifist movement to the University's collection on social justice. And they have particular cause to remember Robert's wartime legacy. Carole says: "When Robert Climie was put to work in the labour camp, he befriended a fellow pacifist called Alex Stewart. The men stayed in touch, and Robert's daughter Cathie went on to marry Alex's son – who she supported when he became a Conscientious Objector in the second world war. It is their son who now wishes his grandfather Robert's story to be remembered."

She added: "Every time I have read Robert's letter I have cried, and never more so than hearing Gary Lewis read it out aloud in front of our cameras. We have heard lots of people's stories from the first world war over the last four years, and I feel this one stands out in our archives and deserved to be told in a different way. I hope people will listen to Gary's reading and think about why a child was brought up without her father because of something her parents believed in and which was against the prevailing mood at the time."